Here are some tips as you try to navigate a crowded summer vacation destination in the next few months.
It’s high noon in Sedona, Ariz., and the vacation crowds are swelling in the early spring heat. They’re jamming up Highway 89A with their RVs, playing bumper-cars on the roundabouts, and forming long lines at the grocery stores and restaurants.
And here we are, with a front-row seat to spring break 2018. How did we get here? How do we get out? Actually, that’s a question you’ll probably ask soon as you try to navigate a crowded summer vacation destination in the next few months. Turns out you can survive the seasonal crowds. I have a few secrets.
Into the eye of the storm
In early April, Sedona is overrun by tourists. It’s like an enormous box of Hatchimals at Walmart on Black Friday. But you can find pockets of sanity. If you can safely navigate the roundabouts to one of the trailheads, timing is important. Most hikers show up in the morning, believing incorrectly that the afternoon will be too hot for a hike.
It isn’t. That would be summer and fall, when temperatures can exceed 90 degrees on the trail. But right now, if you want to see the area’s gorgeous red rocks, you can do that after lunch. Parking? It’s no problem. By then, everyone has left.
We started our hike at the Cibola Pass trailhead. On your map, that’s where it says “Alternate Parking.” That helped us avoid even more of the crowds, who, for some reason, think “alternate” is a dirty word. Cibola connected us to to the more popular Soldier’s Pass, with its sweeping vistas straight out of a Chamber of Commerce sizzle reel.
Lesson learned? Sometimes, you have to head straight into the eye of the storm. It can be remarkably calm.
Get outta town
Sometimes, a destination is filled with visitors for an entire season. Like Boston, where affordable accommodations are simply unavailable in the summer. Well, OK, technically you might find a cheap hotel in the suburbs, but do you want to cram your family of four into a little room for a week?
Our solution: Head out of town. But not too far. We found a spacious four-bedroom vacation rental near Salem, and the Boston area also offers a first-rate mass transit system, so you don’t even have to drive your car into town.
Being away from the chaos of the big city allowed us to take a breather after a long day of visiting Boston, and we could also visit the local grocery store and make our own meals. A short-term rental also proved to be far more cost-effective than booking two hotel rooms, once you factored in the extra restaurant meals.
Still, you have to do your due diligence. Our rental was a personal referral, but I’ve heard more than my fair share of awful experiences on vacation rental websites. Airbnb.com generates the most complaints, plus the hosts love to leave bad reviews about their guests, which can affect your ability to rent from the site in the future. Talk about biting the hand that feeds you!
‘Alternate’ can save the day
Ironically, I learned one of the most valuable lessons about high-impact tourism during the middle of the winter. For years, we’ve been visiting Colorado in late February, against the recommendations of every travel expert I know. It’s the peak of ski season, when the snow is usually incredible. You know, blue skies, a fresh dusting of powder.
I’ll never forget one particularly incredible day in Keystone, Colo., which is one of my favorite resorts. It was a weekend just after several inches of new snow had coated the Rockies, and everyone was there.
Anticipating a deluge of tourists that day, I jumped on my skis early, made a few runs (hey, I had to — it’s powder) and then grabbed my kids and headed to the snow tubing hill. You know, the old zig-when-everyone-else-zags method of vacationing.
And it worked! We spent a quiet morning sliding down the hill while the rest of Denver stood in long lift lines. Lesson learned: You can be in the middle of the chaos without everything being chaotic. Also, your kids will like you more.
Well maybe not all of them, but two out of three ain’t bad.
By Christopher Elliott, his latest book is “How To Be The World’s Smartest Traveler” (National Geographic). He edits the family adventure travel blog Away is Home.